Serving as the headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), this 28-story office tower was built between 1962 and 1972. It stands at 420 feet, making it Salt Lake City’s tallest building at the time of its completion (in 1998 it was superseded by the Wells Fargo Center, which was two feet higher). For the most part, planners in Salt Lake City restricted building heights so as not to obscure the visual majesty of the valley and surrounding mountains. The height of this building makes the church headquarters a local urban landmark and visually connects the tower to the Wasatch Mountains. Despite its conservative symmetry, the building’s modernism is free of the traditional and symbolic vocabulary of Utah’s Mormon architecture, proclaiming the Church’s ambitions to become a global phenomenon.
Forming part of Temple Square, in the heart of downtown, the Church Office Building is in proximity to the Salt Lake Temple, the LDS Conference Center, the Church History Library, and other church facilities. This urban core is made legibly sacred in two ways: through the use of scale and through the use of ornament. It articulates the administrative facilities in a restrained neoclassical-turned-machine aesthetic while the structures for religious and communal rituals are richly ornamented in a traditional idiom. If the former symbolizes rationality, efficiency, a faceless bureaucracy, and a universal ethos, the latter expresses historic continuity, ceremony, representative figures, and a particular ethos. The union of the two constitutes the whole.
The construction of the headquarters marks the convergence of the global ambitions of the Mormon Church and the architectural philosophy of New Formalism. Championed by Edward Durell Stone, Phillip Johnson, and Minoru Yamasaki, this movement called for the revival of classical architecture’s emphasis on compositional rigor and grand symbolic gestures without abandoning the elegant aesthetic achievements of modernism. This was a reaction not only against the rigidity of the International Style but also against politically charged calls for objective and artless treatment of function and structure.
The architect of the building, George Cannon Young (1898–1981), embraced these ideals. Young was responsible for a number of the nearby church edifices including the North Visitors’ Center, the Relief Society Building, and Eagle Gate; his work was key to the visual encoding of the Temple Square. Young’s Office Building seems locked in a dialogue with the Church Administration Building (1914, Joseph Don Carlos Young) across from it. Linked by a formal garden/courtyard, the office building reads as an over-scaled, machine-inspired, abstract version of the smaller but more ornamented neoclassical Church Administration Building. The latter houses the church’s First Elder and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. The dialogue creates a visually codified hierarchy; it gives a pedigree not only to the structural and technological innovations of modern architecture but also the new entrants into the faith. The south entrance opens to a pedestrian-oriented modern courtyard, which leads to a pathway and garden that centrally align the building with the Salt Lake Temple.
The building translates a modernist interest in lightness and transparency into classicizing forms. In the Renaissance tradition, the facade is generally heavier at the base and lighter and smoother as it rises. Young inverts this expectation by raising a heavy tower articulated with thick concrete fins above a weightless glass podium with toothpick columns and paper-thin roof. He insets the fifth floor, creating the impression that the tower is floating over the podium. Part perforated, part solid, the tower reads as a pillar of strength, stability, and solidity, set against the relative openness of the entrance. The monumental treatment of this bureaucratic institution acknowledges the uniqueness and solemnity of its purpose. The choice to dress the building in modernist details is critical. Unlike the first generation of church buildings, which aimed to ground Mormonism in a particular space and time, portraying it as quintessentially nineteenth-century American, this 1970s structure registers a very different moment in the social history of Mormonism. It portrays a universal message rather than a locally grounded one; massive murals of the eastern and western hemispheres, engraved on either side of the entrance, reinforce this global reach.
The Church Office Building coordinates and consolidates thirty-six departments that had previously been located in sixteen separate buildings. It contains a 1,250-car parking garage; a 700-seat cafeteria for employees, patrons, and missionaries; and a 350-seat auditorium. Inside, public areas on the main floor are decorated with copper murals depicting LDS historical events. This floor contains pedagogic and missionary art, retail areas, and elevators. There is clear demarcation between private and public spaces. Public observatories on the 26th floor turn the city into a spectacle. The south observatory surveys the urban sprawl stretching from the Wasatch to the Oquirrh mountain ranges while the north showcases downtown commercial space, Mormon architecture, and the State Capitol.
The Church Office Building is a visible symbol of the dominance of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City and its environs. It monumentalizes the bureaucratic engine housed within, charged with the duty of maintaining and expanding the authority of the church globally. The modernist form suggests a church willing to transcend its nineteenth-century American roots to become a global force. But the greatest feat of this building is that it creates a dialogue with the surrounding architecture, reminding us that a church rooted in Abrahamic traditions is able to grow and adapt to the pressures of time.
Arave, Lynn, and Scott Taylor. “For 35 Years, Church Office Building has been Symbolic Mormon Headquarters, Operational Center for Church Growth.” Deseret News, April 1, 2010.